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Using the Public Land Survey System

How you can discover what Gary looked like before there was a Gary.

Almost anywhere you go in Gary there are clues to what the land looked like before 1906. Match that with information from a few historic maps, some key primary sources, and a little knowledge of the Public Land Survey System and it is possible to deduce what the land looked like before development. There is a lot of great information available free online, but it takes a little bit of knowledge of the system to make sense of it all.

Conventional street addresses will suffice for almost all of the genealogical research you'll do related to where your Gary ancestors lived. But for deeper research into the 19th century history of the area, including Native American history and ecological history, the Public Land Survey System is invaluable and fascinating.

The Public Land Survey System

This system was created with the Land Ordinance of 1785 as a way to plat and sell western lands obtained by the United States after the Revolutionary War. Surveyed lands are marked into a series of rectangular survey townships and sections. Not every state used the standard grid system but fortunately for us Indiana did.

A "township" is a measurement of north-south distance, in six mile units for our situation, from a baseline. A "range" is a measurement of east-west distance, in six mile units, from a meridian. If this is all new to you, don't worry about meridians and baselines. Identifying the township and range numbers is the key. Gary's municipal boundaries fall within the larger boundaries of townships 36 and 37 north and ranges 7, 8, and 9 west.

Finally there are the "sections," which refer to an approximately one square mile unit of land comprising usually 640 acres. Thirty-six sections comprise a "survey township." The numbering system starts in the northeast corner of survey township and snakes around and down, ending with the thirty-sixth section in the southeast corner.

EarthPoint has a free application to use with Google Earth that adds township, range, and section data. It can take a few seconds to refresh when you scale in or out so be patient. It can be a little buggy too.

Let's test it out. Recently I was reading a list in the state archives of properties granted to Native Americans in the 1830s. As the state was systematically removing the majority of the native population it deeded a few properties, usually around bodies of water and wetlands, to native individuals with familial ties to those areas. Curious which, if any, of these holdings were in areas that is today's Gary, I found a conveniently distilled list of Lake County properties owners at www.genealogytrails.com. This short list states the names and tracts registered at the LaPorte/Winnamac land office on October 27, 1832.

Remembering which township and range numbers correspond to Gary, I can quickly identify the ones relevant to my search:

Sec Twp R Acres

Besiah (of French origin) -- 36 -- 37 -- 8 -- 371

Pokakanse -- Little Rib -- 31 -- 37 -- 7 -- 80.51

Misnoke -- Fighting Earth -- 1 -- 36 -- 8 -- 569.34

Ashkum -- Forever a Sturgeon -- 4 -- 36 -- 8 -- 556.5

Nuvataumant -- Beaver cutting a tree -- 6 -- 36 -- 7 -- 298.8

Without specific information from the deed I cannot be certain what parcels within each section were those of the deedholder. But with the township, range, and section numbers identified, I can use Google Earth with the EarthPoint app and easily locate these properties.

Ashkum held title to nearly all of a section that today contains downtown Gary south of the Grand Calumet River to the old Wabash railroad and west of Broadway to Grant Street. Besiah held title to a section that today contains the eastern edge of US Steel and the western end of the Calumet Lagoon. Besiah is recorded as obtaining more property in the area in the later 1830s. Misnoke held title to a section that today contains the Glen Ryan neighborhood and the US 12/20 split. The northern half of this section is now part of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Nuvataumant held title to about half the section that today contains "downtown Miller" around south Lake Street. And Pokakanse held title to 80.5 acres in a section that today contains north Lake Street and the Calumet Lagoon.


The are two historic and exquisitely detailed maps available online that are exceptionally helpful when studying the 19th century history of Northwest Indiana. The oldest is the Descriptive map of unsold lands, created by Solon Robinson around 1838/40. The second is the 1874 Hardesty's sectional map of Lake Co. Indiana, created by Rufus Blanchard. Both show early settlements, major roads and waterways, and the extent of natural features like wetlands, prairies, woods, and the original courses of the Calumet rivers.

Both maps use the Public Land Survey System as their base, making it simple to locate specific parcels without the usual reference points of Interstate highways or municipal boundaries. Let's stick with those 1832 land holdings of Besiah, Misnoke, Nuvataumant, and Pokakanse in the area of today's downtown Miller. Using the historic maps we can get some sense of how the land in this area may have changed over the 19th century.

From left to right: Robinson's 1838/40 map / Blanchard's 1874 map / Google Earth 2020

Solon Robinson's 1838/40 map shows no evidence of human settlements though it does seem to indicate some subdivision of land has taken place. At the top is the Grand Calumet River, spelled Calamic here. The map indicates an island in the river at the west end of section 36 and shows the river's discharge into Lake Michigan in the northeast corner of section 31. The most noticeable water features in sections 1 and 6 are three small bodies of water, each connected by small runs into a large run that empties into the Grand Calumet four and a half miles to the west, on Ashkum's landholding.

Blanchard's 1874 map also shows the Grand Calumet River, the island, and the discharge into the lake at the northeast corner of section 31. But here we have an important lesson: the map is not always the territory. It is unlikely that the Grand Calumet flowed into the lake by this time. According to early and middle 19th century traveler's diaries, the mouth had filled with sand and the river's current had begun to reverse, creating the brackish lagoon we enjoy today. Robinson's 1838/40 map may even be incorrect on this.

The 1874 map identifies an "Indiana City" at the non-existent mouth. Indiana City was one of many lakeshore settlements proposed in the 1830s that never materialized. Though platted in 1836/7 and recorded in 1838 nothing was ever developed. Indiana City does not appear on the Robinson map.

The 1874 map also has Long Lake extending well into section 6--covering roughly the area of the Douglas Environmental Education Center, its main parking lot east of Lake Street, and the Nature Play Zone east of the parking lot. On Robinson's map Long Lake's western shore is placed a half mile to the east, at sections 5 and 32, roughly today's Grand Boulevard. Also missing from Blanchard's map are the three smaller bodies of water and the series of runs shown on Robinson's 1838/40 map.

So which map more accurately reflects the ecological, hydrological, and topographical conditions of the time? Or put another way, how can we use these maps to produce more accurate interpretations of our local past? Again, it is important to remember that the map is not always the territory. Both Robinson's and Blanchard's maps contain assumptions and errors while also containing important facts. They must be read critically, like any source.

Blanchard's map locates the original platted community around Miller Station and also identifies area landowners. Instead of Besiah, Misnoke, Nuvataumant, and Pokakanse the major landholders in this area are now men named Cline, Dahlgren, Ewing, and Taylor.

Clearly the inclusion of a fabled settlement that had failed almost four decades earlier shows that Blanchard (based in Chicago) lacked firsthand familiarity with the Miller area. But anyone who has hiked through the Miller Woods can easily deduce that there would have been more than just three small bodies of water in that area as Robinson's map shows.

I doubt Long Lake ever extended far west enough to cover the Douglas Center, the land around Lake Street is higher than the land immediately east. But walking along Grand Boulevard, which passes through a remnant wetland, it is easy to imagine open water here in wet seasons, perhaps even into the late 19th century.

Looking north on Grand Boulevard

I have found that blending a variety of historic documents with personal familiarity of the territory allows me to better glimpse the past from the present. Don't forget to make hitting the streets part of your research plan!

Can you identify the township, range, and section where your home is located? Can you describe what the natural terrain may have looked like before your neighborhood was built? Who were the nearest Native American landholders to where you live? Where were the closest documented Native American villages to where you live? If you need a little help along your research journey drop us a line at ourgarystories@gmail.com.

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